Austin leaders hopeful to finally adopt CodeNEXT in 2018 after 5 years of development

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Mayor Steve Adler said he sees CodeNEXT—the city’s first attempt at a rewrite of its land-development code since Austin’s sleepy college town days of 1984—as a crucial opportunity for the city to manage its growth rather than become a victim of it.

A land-development code lays out the regulatory blueprint for how land can be used and built upon in a city.

Experts and residents say Austin’s code is “outdated and confusing.” The code discourages diverse housing options, encumbers development and worsens the economic pressures felt by Austin’s rapid growth, they say.

Land and housing demand has far exceeded Austin’s supply, leading to the skyrocketing property values that contribute to the city’s affordability crisis.

“How is it that you manage growth in order to preserve the cities that we love? I’m not sure anyone has found the perfect formula,” said Adler, who often points to San Francisco as a cautionary tale. He said mismanaged growth there pushed the median home price over $1 million.

Much of the community agreed a new land-development code was necessary to take Austin into the future. What that code should look like, however, has been the subject of intense debate since the project began in 2013.

Now, after almost five years of contentious CodeNEXT debates, two draft proposals and more than $8 million spent, the city heads into 2018 hoping it can do something it has not been able to do since the 1980s: adopt a new code.

Land development and the city’s vision

“As a community, when you have a big challenge like this, you lock arms and say, ‘Let’s advance this and do the best we can do,’” Adler said.

Recognizing the challenges posed by its growth, the city came together nine years ago to draft Imagine Austin, the 30-year comprehensive plan that laid out a vision for the city’s future. Adopted in 2012, Imagine Austin highlighted the need for compact and connected development to tame urban sprawl and a diversification of housing types in Austin’s neighborhoods, where demand far surpassed the limited supply of single-family units.

Imagine Austin said this vision necessitated a rewrite of the city’s land-development code, which was riddled with three decades worth of amendments and deemed overly complex and confusing.

The land-development code lays out the plans for a city’s physical environment, so it affects all residents, said Glen Coleman, a managing partner with Austin-based land-use advocacy firm South Llano
Strategies.

“A civilization’s land-use code is the language that shapes the built environment and the daily experience of the city’s inhabitants,” Coleman said. “[Imagine Austin] calls for a mixture of housing types throughout the city, and that is impossible to achieve under the constraints of our current land-use code.”

Coleman points to the city’s central core neighborhoods where although land demand has skyrocketed, the outdated code limits development to single-family homes and duplexes.

Mary Owens, a resident of the Zilker Neighborhood, said a new land-development code is crucial in carrying Austin into the future.

“The current code was written when Austin was a very different place,” Owens said. “As a city we have different needs that are not available [through the current code]. We need more housing.”

Owens points to an example in her neighborhood of what CodeNEXT could do. In 2015 a 5,548-square-foot lot at the corner of Kinney Avenue and Collier Street was rendered undevelopable because it fell 202 square feet short of the minimum lot size. The land remains an untamed grassy void in the middle of the
neighborhood.

The current draft proposal of CodeNEXT reduces the minimum lot size in the neighborhood to 5,000 square feet and could allow for the development of up to three separate units on the lot.

Although an improvement, Owens still expressed disappointment that the code proposals thus far have not done enough to ensure more housing enters the neighborhoods. She said more work remains.

Heading into 2018

Jeff Jack said he has also been dismayed by CodeNEXT to this point but believes it goes too far in placing density in current single-family neighborhoods. He said that it runs against previously adopted plans. Jack presides over the Austin Neighborhoods Council, which ensures that the city’s neighborhood plans are properly carried out.

“Quite frankly I think it has been pretty awful,” said Jack, whose organization has voiced opposition to added housing density in their neighborhoods. “Staff has not been listening to the community. They did not satisfy the community’s concerns on [added]density and [outdated]infrastructure.”

Jack said the city needs to shift the focus from accommodating future growth to making the city more livable for today’s Austinites. He said older neighborhoods do not have the infrastructure capacity, in such systems as drainage, to accommodate the population increases that added housing capacity incentivizes.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who has advocated for neighborhood plan preservation, said the draft proposals differed greatly from people’s expectations. She said trust between the community and staff needs to be restored in order for CodeNEXT to properly move forward in 2018.

Jorge Rousselin, project manager for CodeNEXT, agreed that code proposals still needed improvements but cautioned against any expectation of a “perfect” code.

“Perfect should not be the enemy of the good,” Rousselin said. “It’s a starting point, and over the life of the land-development code, which is continuous, we will continue to evolve it.”

Roger Cauvin, a spokesperson for Friends of Austin Neighborhoods, said equity should be the measuring stick of the code’s success.

“There is a disappointment … that fundamental ideas about equity and people being available to live where they want to live are not taken as a given,” said Cauvin, whose group has pushed for more housing in urban core neighborhoods. “[Imagine Austin] identified the change to code as a crucial piece to our city becoming a beacon of social equity.”

CodeNEXT’s third draft, which will be staff’s official recommendation, is due Feb. 12. Both the Austin Planning Commission and the Austin Zoning and Platting Commission will analyze the draft, and the planning commission will have to approve it before sending it to council, which is scheduled for April.

Adler said that although no one has found the perfect answer to the issues of growth, he expressed confidence in the capital city.

“I think ours is a particularly innovative and collaborative community, so I hold high hopes for what our community can do,” he said. “But the code—as it’s proposed right now—it’s not there yet.”

When asked if the community could expect CodeNEXT to wrap up in 2018, Adler was less
confident.

“I sure do hope so,” he said.

This story is one update from The January Issue. View the full list of Top 10 stories to follow in 2018 here.

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Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and USA Today. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
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